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How an accidental mishearing turned into the Big Lie

STEVEN HUGHES/The Globe and Mail

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My wife and I had been married for a few months when we found ourselves at dinner, in a restaurant we could not afford, just off the Magnificent Mile in Chicago.

We were at a table for eight, graduate students in the midst of professors who were in the midst of industry friends, all attending a conference; psychologists enthralled with the money to be made in metal fabrication and military hardware.

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Someone's car keys had been placed on the white tablecloth for no apparent reason other than to show off the BMW logo. We'd arrived by Amtrak, opted for beer over wine.

But this is not a story about money; it is a story about lying.

One of the members of our dinner party asked us how long we had been together. Five years, we said, but we married six months ago. Where did you go for your honeymoon? The French River.

That's right, that French River, the one between Parry Sound and Sudbury, Ont. The French River of deep, cold water, quiet islands and a cottage for two on a point at Schnell's Campground and Fishing Lodge. A sign that said "we sell bait" was our view out the window. My wife cast her wilting bouquet into the strong currents and watched them cascade over the falls. We ate lunches on islands from A. J. Casson paintings. The sunsets were magnificent.

But in the midst of the noise of the restaurant and the table and the wealth, our honeymoon on the French River became a honeymoon on the French Riviera.

It all started out innocently enough, a simple mishearing. But then the table launched into the virtues and foibles of the French Riviera. We heard how we'd made a rookie mistake going in August, how everyone with a thought in their head leaves the Riviera that month to avoid the heat, how Cape Cod would have been a better choice, how wonderful the opera season is in Sydney, Australia.

The moment to correct the misapprehension had passed. We were trapped in a story that we hadn't told, but had become actors in.

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As our American host instructed us on how to eat mussels correctly (a process that involved so much theatrical sucking, slurping and near-gargling that my Nova Scotia-born wife was just about put off her meal), we became the couple who had tragically gone to the French Riviera in August.

Shortly after, and if you believe in fate perhaps not entirely by coincidence, I met Graham. He taught at a university in South Carolina.

Graham had published a wonderful little paper on how the people who write for encyclopedias do their work. He discovered, for example, that they undertake a certain amount of creative licence in order to get paid. If the level of nickel production for Côte d'Ivoire is unknown, and that is the only thing between the author and a piecework paycheque, well, they make it up, he found.

Graham believes that most of us have a Big Lie in our lives. Now, these are not the lies that come and go – the ones that kids tell their teachers, or patients tell their doctors, or politicians tell the camera. The Big Lie gets woven right into the fabric of our lives. It may only live there for a while, like those Grade 8 lies about having had a secret summer girlfriend. But it may be sustained so long that it becomes part of how other people think of us and how we think of ourselves.

Graham took his Big Lie to the grave. It had begun when he was a graduate student attending one of those stuffy start-of-term events, and folks were discussing the wonderful places they had been. He had been working a crappy job in order to get by.

As the conversation flowed, he decided to make up a place he had been, ensuring that it was both exotic and unlikely to have been visited by any of the others.

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So, in one grand leap of falsehood, he told everyone that he had spent part of the summer in Cuba: Castro's Cuban-missile-crisis-Cuba. The room was enthralled. He made up his clandestine entry, his labourer friends, his lovers, his nights in Old Havana.

Word spread through his department. Shortly after, he received invitations to do guest lectures, requests to speak to community groups, and calls from the local newspaper looking for an interview. He became the "American in Havana."

There was no going back. He undertook the research to support his Big Lie with the passion of a novelist, searching out authentic descriptions of places he had never been. Soon he had not only been there, but had become a voice for Cuba. It was all a lie, but it was an invigorating, life-changing lie.

What makes the Big Lie really big is not what its speaker intended at first, but what happens when it is taken up by others. To some extent we all become the parts we play.

For my part, since my honeymoon on the French Riviera I have enjoyed spending part of a recent sabbatical as a writer on Saturday Night Live, and am looking forward to returning to full-time teaching. No, really I am.

Scott Grills lives in Brandon, Man.

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